CSIS – Southeast Asia from Scott Circle – May 12, 2016

Fully Lifting the U.S. Lethal Arms Ban Will Add Momentum to U.S.-Vietnam Relations

By Murray Hiebert (@MurrayHiebert1), Senior Adviser and Deputy Director, and Phuong Nguyen, Associate Fellow (@PNguyenDC), Southeast Asia Program (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

May 12, 2016

Ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam in late May, officials and analysts in both Washington and Hanoi have been talking about whether the United States should fully lift the ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam that was imposed when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. The issue has been given added urgency as bilateral relations have increasingly warmed and in light of shared U.S. and Vietnamese interests in preserving maritime security in the South China Sea.

The Obama administration partially eased the ban in October 2014 in an effort to help Vietnam improve its maritime security capabilities and in response to “modest” improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record. Vietnamese officials have since called for the ban to be fully lifted. To Hanoi, the continuation of the ban means that relations, including military ties, have not been fully normalized. Here lies the difference in views between the two sides.

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Biweekly Update

  • Duterte set to become next Philippine president
  • U.S. defense secretary supports lifting lethal arms ban against Vietnam
  • Myanmar foreign ministry asks U.S. to refrain from using word “Rohingya”
  • U.S. Navy conducts freedom of navigation near Fiery Cross Reef

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Looking Ahead

  • U.S. Policy in Southeast Asia: A Conversation with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes
  • Banyan Tree Leadership Forum with Dr. Surin Pitsuwan
  • President Obama in Hanoi: Vietnam-U.S.-China Relations in Transition

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Fully Lifting the U.S. Lethal Arms Ban Will Add Momentum to U.S.-Vietnam Relations

By Murray Hiebert (@MurrayHiebert1), Senior Adviser and Deputy Director, and Phuong Nguyen, Associate Fellow (@PNguyen_DC), Southeast Asia Program (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

May 12, 2016

Ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam in late May, officials and analysts in both Washington and Hanoi have been talking about whether the United States should fully lift the ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam that was imposed when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. The issue has been given added urgency as bilateral relations have increasingly warmed and in light of shared U.S. and Vietnamese interests in preserving maritime security in the South China Sea.

The Obama administration partially eased the ban in October 2014 in an effort to help Vietnam improve its maritime security capabilities and in response to “modest” improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record. Vietnamese officials have since called for the ban to be fully lifted. To Hanoi, the continuation of the ban means that relations, including military ties, have not been fully normalized. Here lies the difference in views between the two sides.

As Hanoi and Washington began to explore substantive ways to boost ties earlier in the U.S. rebalance to Asia, U.S. officials forged the link between removal of the ban and progress on human rights as a way to maintain leverage. The linkage was made on the premise that Vietnam has an interest in seeking closer security cooperation with the United States in the face of China’s increasingly assertive posture in the South China Sea.

The strategic milieu of U.S.-Vietnam relations has evolved since then. While it was not entirely clear at first how committed Vietnam would be as a partner in U.S.-led efforts to foster a regional order based on international rules and norms, the two countries have made significant strides in recent years. They upgraded relations to a comprehensive partnership in 2013, embarked on Coast Guard cooperation the same year, and inked a joint vision statement on advancing bilateral defense relations in 2015. Most significantly, Vietnam concluded negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement with the United States and 10 other countries last October.

Signing on to the TPP was not an easy decision for Hanoi. Given Vietnam’s political sensitivities and level of economic development, Vietnamese leaders would not have stuck with the difficult negotiations unless they had confidence in the United States’ ability to lead the region in future years, according to a senior U.S. diplomat. Vietnam joined the TPP in 2009, yet uncertainty was rife over whether Hanoi’s collective leadership would back the deal, and whether Vietnam would be able to conclude the talks. In the end, Vietnam delivered on both counts.

State Department officials often refer to the TPP as “the most important piece of human rights legislation” in the context of Vietnam. For instance, under the TPP labor implementation plan negotiated between the United States and Vietnam, Hanoi agreed to carry out legal reforms to allow workers freedom of association, collective bargaining power, and the right to hold strikes. Vietnam pledged to adhere to labor standards set by the International Labor Organization and to be subject to periodic reviews of its labor rights record once the TPP takes effect.

Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress who have emphasized the need for Vietnam to demonstrate concrete progress on rights issues have a chance to help enforce these labor standards by getting behind the TPP. But retaining the lethal arms ban under current circumstances is of little strategic value to the United States.

Despite significant milestones in U.S.-Vietnam defense relations in recent years, the two militaries have really just begun to get to know each other. Many in Hanoi still question whether the United States intends to work with Vietnam in a serious and constructive manner in the coming years. This feeling of suspicion is not new—it can be traced back to the period after the Vietnam War when Hanoi and Washington were estranged and struggled to establish rules of engagement before normalizing diplomatic relations in 1995.

The two countries have since worked hard to address the vestiges of mutual suspicion, one step at a time. Last year, this took the form of the first-ever visit of a Vietnamese Communist Party chief, the country’s highest political leader, to the White House—a signal that the two sides respect each other’s political systems. This year, it will be Obama’s first visit to Vietnam, and the third consecutive trip by a U.S. president since normalization of ties.

Fully lifting the U.S. lethal arms ban will remove another remaining vestige of distrust between the two new partners. Different actors within the U.S. government have been weighing the benefits and costs of this move. Proponents of the full removal, including Senator John McCain, point to the value in forging closer maritime security collaboration with Vietnam’s fast-growing military. Critics, including some who support the upward trajectory of U.S.-Vietnam relations in general, have honed in on the need for more progress on human rights prior to any decision. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Vietnam to release all political prisoners unconditionally during his visit to Hanoi last month.

For Washington, the rationale behind fully removing the ban should be reciprocity, but not exclusively in terms of human rights improvements. Instead, lifting the ban could be messaged as a confidence-building measure to convey to Hanoi that the United States in return would like to see Vietnam take increased initiatives in the next phase of defense relations, particularly in the area of defense trade.

Initial efforts in this area are under way but are still in the early stages. The U.S. Department of Defense and Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense last year launched a working group on defense trade, allowing representatives from both the Vietnamese and U.S. defense industries to be part of the official mechanism of defense policy dialogue between the two ministries. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi has played a crucial role in helping Vietnamese policymakers become more acquainted with the U.S. defense procurement process since the partial lifting of the ban.

Vietnam wants and needs to steadily pursue military modernization, and it values U.S. military technology as a potential source of strategic leverage. Not only does Vietnam need to build an effective deterrent force in the face of China’s aggressiveness—it was the world’s eighth largest arms importer between 2011 and 2015—it also prefers to gradually reduce its overreliance on Russian-made systems and forge interoperability with its emerging regional partners, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and the United States. However, the uncertainty created by the ban complicates Vietnam’s calculus in moving forward with the United States in this area.

Some express concern that removing the ban might open the door for Hanoi to acquire military equipment that could be used for human rights violations. But even in the absence of a ban, Vietnam will need to jump through the rigorous approval process by U.S. government agencies and Congress, as do other countries that purchase U.S. weapon systems. It makes little sense when the U.S. government has been training Vietnam’s military in international peacekeeping that Washington still maintains a ban against Hanoi.

For its part, Vietnam can be expected to calibrate when and what it will purchase from U.S. defense manufacturers. This is partly due to technical reasons, as Vietnam will need to integrate U.S.-made hardware into its current platforms, but more importantly, because Hanoi does not want Beijing to perceive any such moves as a threat to which it needs to respond.

Ultimately, U.S. foreign policy is most effective when leaders use the right tools in their toolkit. Obama has a critical opportunity during his visit to communicate to Vietnamese leaders U.S. thinking about whether and under what circumstances the remaining arms ban would be lifted. The U.S. Congress will have a chance to reassess the situation following Obama’s visit. But the utility of the arms ban on Vietnam has outlived its usefulness.

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Biweekly Update


Duterte set to become next Philippine president. Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte on May 10 declared victory in the Philippine presidential elections, winning over 38 percent of the votes cast in a field of five presidential hopefuls. Second-placed Mar Roxas trailed Duterte by more than 6 million votes. Duterte, who has pledged to be a dictator against forces of evil and vowed to step down in six months if he does not weed out crime and corruption, said he accepts the people’s mandate “with humility.”

Japan to lease military aircraft to the Philippines. Japan and the Philippines on May 2 reached an agreement, during a call between Japanese defense minister Gen Nakatani and his Philippine counterpart, Voltaire Gazmin, that will see Tokyo leasing Manila five TC-90 training airplanes. Gazmin said the terms of the lease will be discussed on the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in Laos later this month. With twice the flight range of the Philippine navy’s patrol aircraft, the TC-90 is expected to significantly boost the Philippines’ surveillance capabilities.

Abu Sayyaf releases videos of remaining hostages pleading for lives. The militant group Abu Sayyaf on May 3 released a new video showing three hostages that it had captured from a resort last September pleading for their lives. Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad, Canadian Robert Hall, and Philippine national Marites Flor were kidnapped along with Canadian John Ridsdel, who was beheaded on April 25. In the video, the three were shown pleading for their governments to meet Abu Sayyaf’s ransom demands. The Canadian and Philippine governments have made clear they will not pay ransoms.

Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia agree on coordinated patrols in Sulu, Celebes Seas. The Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia on May 5 signed a joint declaration on maritime security, calling for intensified efforts to jointly tackle maritime threats, after recent kidnappings by the militant group Abu Sayyaf in the waters surrounding the Sulu Archipelago. The foreign ministers and military leaders of the three countries agreed to conduct coordinated sea patrols, improve intelligence sharing, and establish a hotline to facilitate coordination during emergencies.

Philippines, EU to begin free trade negotiations. Philippine trade undersecretary Ceferino Rodolfo on April 29 said the government is preparing for the first round of talks on a free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union (EU), to be held in Brussels on May 23-27. While most Philippine exports to EU countries currently enjoy preferential tariff treatment under the EU’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus program, the government eyes a potential FTA as a more permanent opportunity to establish a foothold for Philippine products in the EU market and attract greater foreign investment from EU companies in the Philippines.

Government says return of stolen money to Bangladesh central bank under way. Acting Justice Secretary Emmanuel Caparas on April 26 said the Philippines is in the process of returning to Bangladesh the $81 million stolen by hackers from its central bank, after Bangladeshi ambassador to the Philippines John Gomes requested help for the return of the money. Caparas said the Justice Department has to follow legal procedures, but will ensure that the process is sped up. Meanwhile, the Philippine Senate will hold its next hearing on the heist on May 17.


U.S. defense secretary would support full lifting of U.S. lethal arms ban against Vietnam. U.S. defense secretary Ashton Carter on April 28 said during a congressional hearing he supported lifting the United States’ ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam. Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States, Pham Quang Vinh, on the same day called for a removal of the ban during a speech at the Vietnam War Summit in Austin, Texas, citing progress in U.S.-Vietnam relations. A partial lifting of the three-decades-old ban occurred in October 2014, allowing sales of lethal arms to Vietnam on a case-by-case basis.

Top U.S. State Department officials travel to Vietnam ahead of Obama’s visit. U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel and assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor Tom Malinowski on May 9-10 visited Vietnam ahead of President Barack Obama’s trip, slated for May 22-25. Both Russel and Malinowski held meetings focused on advancing human rights in Vietnam as a necessary condition for lifting a ban on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam, an issue that has seen increased discussion in light of regional tensions in the South China Sea.

U.S. agriculture secretary lauds potential for agricultural trade under TPP. U.S. agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack traveled to Vietnam from April 25 to 28 to discuss the issues related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. The two countries agreed to increase agricultural trade, while Vietnam requested U.S. assistance on quarantines and ensuring food safety standards. Vietnam also lobbied to increase exports of mangoes and starfruit, and raised concerns over recent U.S. inspection regulations that negatively impact Vietnam’s catfish exports to the U.S. market. Vilsack said the law would not be changed but reiterated that the United States would provide Vietnam technical assistance to manage the regulations on catfish.

Mass fish death in central Vietnam prompts street protests, debate on foreign investment. The widespread death of fish first noticed on April 6 in central Vietnam’s Ha Tinh Province has provoked several public demonstrations, which attributed the problem to wastewater from a Taiwan-invested steel plant. Formosa Plastics, which operates the plant, denied the accusations. Protests also arose over the government’s slow response to the problem, for which environment minister Tran Hong Ha apologized on April 28. Ha said that the government would continue to investigate the cause of the fish deaths.

Defense minister visits Russia in first official trip, calls on ASEAN to take central role in South China Sea. Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich on April 25 met his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoygu, in Moscow, where they agreed to boost defense cooperation, including sending Russian soldiers to Vietnam for training. Lich said during his visit that ASEAN should take a central role in enhancing regional security cooperation and speak with a single voice on the South China Sea issue. The Vietnamese minister was responding to an April 18 statement by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov that called for direct negotiations between involved parties, a process seen to favor China. Lich also participated in the fifth Moscow International Security Conference with the other ASEAN defense ministers.

Vietnam announces final list of candidates running for legislature seats. Vietnam’s National Election Council on April 26 released a finalized list of candidates for the National Assembly elections, comprising 870 candidates competing for 500 seats. Among these were 11 of an initial 162 self-nominated candidates. Council chief Nguyen Hanh Phuc told Tuoi Tre News that many were eliminated in the final round of selection out of a “more comprehensive view” that sought to go beyond the concerns of local electorates.


USAID head visits Myanmar, reaffirms U.S. support for reform process. Gayle Smith, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), visited Myanmar from April 29 to May 3 to meet with representatives of the new government, private sector, and civil society, and inspected USAID-supported agricultural projects in rural Myanmar. Smith spoke on the importance of freedom of speech in Myanmar, and reaffirmed U.S. support for the National League for Democracy government and Myanmar’s reform process. The visit was part of Smith’s first trip to Asia, which also took her to China.

Foreign ministry asks U.S. not to use word “Rohingya” after protest by Buddhist nationalists. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on May 3 sent a note asking the U.S. Embassy in Yangon to stop using the word “Rohingya,” after Buddhist nationalists held a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy on April 28 to protest a U.S. statement expressing condolences over a boat accident in which 40 Muslim Rohingya died. A senior ministry official said continued use of the word by the U.S. government “is not supportive of national reconciliation” in Myanmar. U.S. ambassador Scot Marciel previously said it is normal to call people what they wish to be called.

Parliament approves proposal for new State Counselor Ministry. President Htin Kyaw on May 5 presented a proposal to create a new ministry under the purview of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. The president told parliament that the new ministry would help implement national reconciliation, national development, internal peace, and the rule of law. Parliament approved the proposal on May 10.

Aung San Suu Kyi meets with military, ethnic armed groups to call for new peace conference. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on April 27 said the new government plans to hold a peace conference with ethnic armed groups within the next two months. She made the remark during a meeting with military representatives, the Joint Monitoring Committee—which monitors the cease-fire agreement signed last October—and ethnic representatives. Aung San Suu Kyi also appointed Tin Myo Win, her personal physician, to be the new peace mediator to observe negotiations between the different parties.

Parliament approves urgent debate on fighting in Rakhine; NLD wants to invite Arakan Army to peace talks. Parliament on May 2 approved a proposal by Wai Sein Aung, a lawmaker with the Arakan National Party, to hold a parliamentary debate on the escalated fighting in Rakhine State between government troops and the rebel Arakan Army, and whether to invite the Arakan Army to join peace talks under the new government. Military lawmakers strongly objected to the motion. Fighting in Rakhine State erupted most recently on April 28 and has displaced over 1,000 people. The previous government did not include the Arakan Army in cease-fire talks.

Fighting breaks out in Shan and Kachin states. Two ethnic armed groups in Shan State, the Restoration Council of Shan State and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, clashed on May 1 in eastern Shan State, the latest round of fighting between the two over territory control since the former signed a cease-fire agreement with the government last October. Meanwhile, clashes between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) broke out near the jade mining town of Hpakant in southern Kachin State in early May, with the military seizing two KIA posts following the fighting. This is the first time government troops clashed with the militarily powerful KIA since the new government took office.


Abu Sayyaf frees 10 kidnapped Indonesian sailors. The militant group Abu Sayyaf on May 1 released 10 kidnapped Indonesian sailors, after holding them hostage in the southern Philippines for over a month. The sailors were dropped off in Jolo, an island in the Sulu Sea between Indonesia and the Philippines. President Joko Widodo said on May 11 that four other Indonesians, taken hostage in a later incident, have also been released to Philippine authorities and will soon be handed over to Indonesian authorities.

Indonesia to launch talks with EU on comprehensive economic partnership agreement. Trade Minister Thomas Lembong on April 26 said that the initial phase of the Indonesia-European Union (EU) comprehensive economic partnership agreement was completed during President Joko Widodo’s visit to Belgium earlier this month, and that formal negotiations will commence in the next four to six months, once an EU technical committee has completed its internal discussions. Negotiations are expected to take around two years and be completed in 2019.

Government finalizing regulation for economic stimulus packages, eyes $30 billion investment from China. The chief of Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating Board, Franky Sibarany, on May 3 said the government has resolved 97 percent of the regulations needed to implement the 12 economic stimulus packages that President Joko Widodo has announced. The government has been in discussions to overhaul the Negative Investment List to further open up investment areas for foreign companies. Sibarany also said the investment agency aims to attract $30 billion in investment commitments from China in 2016.

Indonesia to track illegal fishing vessels using global satellites; holds month-long patrol with India in the Andaman Sea. Indonesia on April 27 announced an agreement with satellite-powered data company Spire Global to use the company’s satellites to track illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing vessels in Indonesian waters. The agreement is expected to help Indonesia better monitor maritime activities in its more remote territory. Separately, India and Indonesia on April 28 began the 27th iteration of the India-Indonesia Coordinated Patrol, a biannual joint patrol exercise between the two countries in the Andaman Sea.

Jokowi orders probe into anti-communist purges; calls for severe punishment in gang rape case. Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan on April 25 said President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has ordered an investigation into the anti-communist purges of 1965-1966. Rights groups confirmed that the government has begun collecting information on the alleged mass graves across the country. Separately, Jokowi on May 4 called for severe punishment for those involved in the brutal gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old schoolgirl in April. Seven of the apprehended suspects, who are underage, have each been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Police arrest over 1,500 demonstrators in Papua. Over 1,500 students and activists were detained on May 2 for staging a rally in support of West Papua’s independence and full membership in the Melanesia Spearhead Group. Local police said the demonstrators were arrested because they did not obtain a permit to hold the rally; most were released later that night. According to activists, this was the largest case of mass arrest since the end of the Suharto regime in 1998.


Japanese foreign minister visits Thailand, reaffirms bilateral economic ties. Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida stressed economic ties with Thailand during his May 1-2 visit to Bangkok. Kishida affirmed Thailand’s importance to Japan as a regional partner in light of the 4,500 Japanese companies that operate in the country. Japanese investment in Thailand has been on the decline due to concerns about Thailand’s ongoing political problems, dropping by 81 percent last year.

Ministry of Transport looks to fast-track high-speed rail project with Japan. Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith on April 28 said the government is considering a measure to fast-track the development of a joint Thai-Japanese high-speed rail project. The Council of State is reviewing the ability of the government to expropriate land for commercial purposes after a request from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which hopes to attract investors with land along the rail corridor between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha met Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida in Bangkok on May 2 and reassured him of support for the Japanese investment.

Government cracks down on critics, jails nine activists. The military government on April 30 announced that it had jailed nine individuals who posted online criticisms of the government and its draft constitution, charging them with computer crime, sedition, and royal defamation. The military government has sought to minimize criticisms and debate of the draft constitution, which will be put up for a referendum on August 7. The government on April 27 briefly detained 16 protesters in Bangkok as they participated in a silent demonstration against the recent arrests.

Thai journalists call on prime minister to loosen control over media. Members of the Thai Journalists Association on May 4 visited Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to ask him to revoke several decrees that restrict press freedom in Thailand, in commemoration of World Press Freedom Day. They also asked for reforms to safeguard press autonomy and to facilitate self-regulation among the media. Prayuth said he would consider the request, but also joked that he might issue new laws. Prayuth said the Thai Journalists Association reporting would “lead to clashes.”

Prayuth refuses to negotiate with militant groups in southern Thailand. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on April 29 said that he would not negotiate with southern militant groups who continue to violate the laws. This came after a meeting between representatives from the Thai military and one such militant group, Mara Patani, in Kuala Lumpur, and in response to criticisms over the government’s refusal to pursue peace talks in southern Thailand. Prayuth cited the failure of the previous government’s attempts at peace talks.


New chief of central bank announced. The Prime Minister’s Office on April 27 announced that deputy central bank governor Muhammad Ibrahim will be the new governor of Malaysia’s central bank. Muhammad will make his first public appearance on May 13 to announce the first quarter’s growth figures and will chair his first policy meeting on May 19. His appointment was intended to reassure investors of the government’s commitment to the prudent monetary policy spearheaded by former central bank governor Zeti Akthar Aziz. Zeti finished her 16-year tenure on April 30.

1MDB board of directors dissolves amid parliamentary inquiry. The Ministry of Finance on May 4 accepted the resignation of the board of directors of state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), effective May 31. Members of the board announced their resignation following the public release of a parliamentary inquiry’s report on 1MDB in April. Arul Kanda, 1MDB’s current president, will remain in his role. Prime Minister Najib Razak, who chaired 1MDB’s advisory board, will end his role at 1MDB but will continue to govern the fund as finance minister.

Foreign ministry criticizes U.S. annual report on human rights issues in Malaysia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on April 22 dismissed allegations of human rights abuses in Malaysia raised in the U.S. State Department’s annual report on the state of human rights across the world. It accused the report of purposefully tarnishing the Malaysian government’s name without considering its efforts to promote human rights. The State Department report criticized the Malaysian government over selectively enforcing laws, such as the Sedition Act, with the aim of silencing opposition politicians, journalists, civil society members, and critics.

Ruling party wins Sarawak election with two-thirds majority. The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition on May 7 secured a victory in the Sarawak state election, winning 72 out of 82 contested seats. The election results helped Prime Minister Najib Razak bolster power within his United Malay National Organization amid the worsening scandal over state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd. Activists have accused Najib and his local ally, Sarawak chief minister Adenan Satem, of breaching election laws, vote buying, and denying opposition members access to Sarawak for campaigning.


Ruling party wins Bukit Batok by-election. The ruling People’s Action Party’s Murali Pillai on May 7 secured a two-thirds majority win against the opposition Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) secretary-general, Chee Soon Juan, in the Bukit Batok by-election. Prime Minister Hsien Loong Lee said Pillai’s victory indicates stronger unity between the government and its citizens. Chee will remain in his role as SDP’s leader.

Authorities detain eight Bangladeshis for planning terror attacks in home country. Authorities on May 3 detained eight Bangladeshi men suspected of planning to stage terrorist attacks in their home country in support of the so-called Islamic State in Bangladesh. The men, ages 24 to 36, came to Singapore as construction or marine industries workers. The men were detained under the Internal Security Act. It is unclear whether the men will be deported or tried in Singapore.

China plans $22 billion for infrastructure projects in Singapore. China Construction Bank Corporation (CCB) on April 25 signed a memorandum of understanding with International Enterprise Singapore, the government agency in charge of advancing Singapore businesses abroad, to provide $22 billion in financing for infrastructure projects to be constructed under China’s One Belt One Road initiative. This is the first co-financing agreement that the bank has signed with a Southeast Asian country. The partnership will allow Singapore to access CCB’s network in 25 countries and regions.

Singapore launches platform to help SMEs do business in Europe. Singapore on April 21 launched the Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) Singapore Center, a platform that aims to help Singapore companies develop business and technological collaboration with partners in Europe. The new initiative will be housed under the European Commission’s Agency for Small and Medium Industries in Brussels. More than 200 Singapore companies have registered for the platform since its establishment, and 50 companies have found matching partners.

Singapore, Australia to expand military partnership. Singapore on May 6 agreed to spend $1.7 billion to expand two Australian military bases for training missions of the Singapore armed forces. Singapore announced it will double the number of personnel it sends every year for training in Australia to 14,000 troops as part of the newly upgraded Singapore-Australia comprehensive strategic partnership. The two governments also agreed to allow private Singapore firms to invest in Australia without being subject to foreign investment barriers.

South China Sea

U.S. warship sails near Chinese-occupied Fiery Cross Reef. The guided missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence on May 10 conducted a freedom of navigation exercise by sailing within 12 nautical miles of the disputed Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. China responded by scrambling two fighter jets and shadowing the U.S. warship with three of its own warships, asking it to leave. U.S. assistant secretary of state Daniel Russel, who was visiting Hanoi when the exercise took place, said U.S. freedom of navigation operations are not provocations but rather “good global citizenship.”

McCain says U.S. freedom of navigation in South China Sea should be “magnified,” not “classified.” Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Senator John McCain on April 28 criticized Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter for failing to provide details on U.S. air patrols near Scarborough Shoal, which China seized from the Philippines in 2012. McCain insisted the United States should be upfront about its military operations in the region, and that efforts to promote respect for international law should be “magnified throughout the world.” Carter responded that certain aspects of such operations are classified and should not be disclosed.

U.S. flies air patrol missions near Scarborough Shoal. Three U.S. attack aircraft on April 19 conducted patrols near Scarborough Shoal, amid concerns that the shoal could be the next area for Chinese reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea. China on April 25 condemned the flights, claiming that the shoal is part of its “inherent territory.” The United States has been increasingly concerned that China’s deployment of military equipment to Scarborough Shoal, which lies 120 nautical miles off the Philippine coast, can pose a threat to stepped-up U.S. military presence in the Philippines.

China to conduct exercise in South China Sea involving submarines, advanced warships. Three Chinese naval ships on May 4 left Hainan Province to begin military exercises in the disputed South China Sea. Missile destroyers, submarines, and “special warfare” personnel are also expected to join the fleet for the annual combat drills. According to the Chinese navy, the exercises aim to increase combat preparedness and strengthen coordination between the People’s Liberation Army’s ships and aircraft.

Indonesian minister says Indonesia wants “mutual understanding” with China on fishing. Indonesia’s coordinating minister for politics, legal, and security affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, on April 28 said his recent visit to China was aimed at strengthening bilateral relations and easing tensions following recent illegal fishing encounters. Luhut asserted Indonesia’s interest in developing a “mutual understanding” and reaching a “win-win solution” with China on fishing in the South China Sea. During an April 26 meeting in Beijing, the Indonesian minister and Chinese state counselor Yang Jiechi agreed to focus cooperation efforts on maritime and cyber security issues.

China “shocked” by comments of Singapore diplomats, wants clarification. China’s vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin on April 27 said he was “shocked” at comments made on April 25 by two Singaporean diplomats, Bilahari Kausikan and Ong Keng Yong, accusing China of dividing ASEAN by allegedly forging a side consensus with Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos on the South China Sea issue. Liu called on Singapore to provide clarification on the comments. According to Liu, the consensus reached between China and the three ASEAN members is based on the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which calls on parties not to engage in activities that escalate disputes.

Trans-Pacific Partnership

Obama says TPP would let U.S., not China, lead the way on global trade. President Barrack Obama on May 2 advocated for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, in which he called for America to set the precedent for global trade rules instead of allowing China to lead. Obama also criticized the Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement, a trade agreement being negotiated between ASEAN member economies and six ASEAN dialogue partners (not including the United States) as having no mechanisms to ensure fair competition by state-owned enterprises, no protection of intellectual property, and no high labor and environment standards.

Eight former defense secretaries push for TPP on national security grounds. Eight former U.S. secretaries of defense on April 27 expressed support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement in a letter to congressional leaders, including Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan. They said the TPP is needed to help strengthen U.S. relationships with allies in the Asia-Pacific region and establish high standards in global trade in line with U.S. interests and values. The former secretaries reiterated the importance of the TPP in helping maintain U.S. leadership in the twenty-first century.

U.S. Commerce releases TPP export opportunities report. The U.S. Department of Commerce on April 22 released a report on the opportunities that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would create for member states. The report details country-by-country export opportunities for U.S. businesses to invest in these countries once the TPP is in effect. U.S. secretary of commerce Penny Pritzker has said the TPP will help create a level playing field in the global marketplace, especially in fast-growing markets in Southeast Asia.

Japanese lawmakers confident TPP ratification will sail through this year. Three members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on May 3 expressed confidence that the Japanese Diet will ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement in its upcoming session in August, despite resistance from opposition parties and uncertainty over whether the U.S. Congress will vote on the deal before a new U.S. administration takes office. The LDP holds majority seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament.


Laos, China to increase security cooperation. China and Laos have agreed to enhance military cooperation through personnel training and party-building activities, according to a May 4 Xinhua report. The announcement came as the new president of Laos, Bounnhang Vorachit, visited Beijing on May 3. Militants in Laos have targeted Chinese nationals in recent months and killed two Chinese in a bus attack in January.

Myanmar’s president and state counselor visit Laos. Myanmar president Htin Kyaw, accompanied by State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, made his first official trip abroad to Laos on May 6. Htin Kyaw met with Lao president Bounnhang Vorachit and prime minister Thongloun Sisoulith. According to the Lao Foreign Ministry, the two countries agreed to increase cooperation on tourism, education, trade, and investment. Htin Kyaw also pledged to support Laos’s chairmanship of ASEAN this year.

Police detain suspects in bus attacks. Authorities have arrested 30 people suspected of killing a Chinese national and wounding six other Chinese in a bus shooting in March, according to an April 21 Radio Free Asia report. Police captured the suspects on April 7 while they attempted to rob construction workers for petroleum in a district in Vientiane. The attackers were also implicated in other shootings in Vientiane and Xaysomboun Province.


UN, human rights workers charged with bribery over widening Kem Sokha affair scandal. Four election activists, the deputy secretary-general of the National Election Commission, and a worker with the United Nations on May 2 were charged with bribing opposition leader Kem Sokha’s alleged mistress. The UN employee, Sally Soen, was charged in absentia, but the Foreign Ministry later affirmed his UN immunity and advised authorities to drop proceedings against him. The charges are widely seen as politically motivated, as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party looks to eliminate rivals ahead of the 2018 general elections.

Assailants in beatings of lawmakers confirmed as members of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit. A defendant on trial for the beating of two opposition legislators admitted on April 28 that he and two co-defendants were personal bodyguards for Prime Minister Hun Sen. Government officials had previously denied their membership in the elite bodyguard unit. The lawmakers were attacked by a crowd in October 2015 while attempting to leave the National Assembly during a protest in favor of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. The defendant described beating one of the lawmakers, who had allegedly insulted him.


South Korea interested in conducting bilateral exercises with Brunei. South Korean naval commander Bae Jinseok on May 2 said that South Korea is interested in conducting joint military exercises with Brunei as part of an effort to boost bilateral defense cooperation. The exercises will enable the two countries to address security issues of mutual concern, such as terrorism and maritime piracy. The South Korean destroyer ROKS Choi Young this year participated for the first time in the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus maritime security and counterterrorism exercise, jointly hosted by Brunei and Singapore.

Timor Leste

Workers protest minimum wage outside prime minister’s palace. More than 400 workers on May 1 protested outside the prime minister’s palace in Dili to press the government to increase the daily minimum wage. Father Adrian Ola Duli, a top Timorese church official, says the current daily minimum wage of $3.75 no longer covers the cost of three meals per day for the average Timorese worker. Minister of Labor Ilidio Ximenes da Costa said the government will carefully consider the demands and look for ways to improve the welfare of workers.

Prime minister urged to withdraw criminal defamation case against journalists. Prime Minister Rui de Araujo on April 22 came under criticisms from four journalist groups for failing to withdraw a criminal defamation case against two Timor Post journalists. The press freedom groups sent a letter to de Araujo condemning the use of the “slanderous denunciation” clause in Timor-Leste’s penal code and the three-year jail penalty it carries. The prime minister lashed out in a four-page response, citing “press irresponsibility” as the main reason he would not drop the case.


ASEAN holds ADMM-Plus joint exercise in maritime security and counterterrorism. The ADMM-Plus maritime security and counterterrorism exercise officially began on May 3 in Brunei. Participating navies come from the 10 ASEAN countries, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the United States. The exercise continues until May 12, with the second half of the activities conducted in Singapore. Approximately 18 ships, 17 helicopters, and two maritime patrol aircraft are deployed during the exercise.

ASEAN+3 to enhance financial safety net. Finance ministers and central bank governors from ASEAN, China, Japan, and South Korea on May 3 agreed to enhance the region’s financial safety net in the face of the global economic slowdown and the volatile financial market. The countries agreed to strengthen short-term liquidity supply, bolster regional surveillance units, and establish local-currency-denominated bond markets. Officials also stressed the importance of using monetary, fiscal, and structural policy tools to promote sustainable and inclusive growth.

ASEAN discusses reducing non-tariff barriers on regional auto parts trading. ASEAN delegates on May 4-5 discussed the reduction of non-tariff barriers in regional auto parts trading, during a meeting of the ASEAN Consultative Committee for Standards and Quality Automotive Product Working Group. As one of the largest automotive markets in the world, ASEAN strives to become a production base for car manufacturers by making it easier and cheaper for them to ship components within ASEAN countries.

Mekong River

Japan pledges $7 billion to support growth in Lower Mekong countries over three years. Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida on May 2 said Japan will provide $7 billion in aid over the next three years to countries in the Lower Mekong region–Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam—to help enhance infrastructure and development. Kishida made the announcement in Bangkok at the start of his week-long trip to Southeast Asia. Kishida also reaffirmed Japan’s support for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

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Looking Ahead

U.S. Policy in Southeast Asia: A Conversation with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. The Center for a New American Security on May 17 will host a discussion with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes on developments in Asia in advance of President Barack Obama’s trip to Vietnam and the G-7 summit in Japan in late May. Rhodes will also talk about changes in U.S.-Myanmar relations in the aftermath of the newly elected government led by the National League for Democracy. The event will take place from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., Crystal Room, Willard InterContinental Hotel, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW. Click here to register.

Banyan Tree Leadership Forum with Dr. Surin Pitsuwan. The CSIS Southeast Asia Program on May 18 will host a discussion with Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, former secretary-general of ASEAN and former foreign minister of Thailand, on the opportunities and challenges facing ASEAN in the midst of the Asia-Pacific region’s changing strategic landscape. The event will take place from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m., 2nd Floor Conference Center, 1616 Rhode Island Ave., NW. A light lunch will be served from 11:30 a.m. E-mail the Southeast Asia Program to register.

2016 Global Development Forum. The CSIS Project on U.S. Leadership in Development will host its annual Global Development Forum (GDF)) on May 19. GDF 2016 seeks to address the complex issues highlighted by the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals and examine the role and purpose of official development assistance against a backdrop of rising incomes, rapid urbanization, economic growth, and youth unemployment in many parts of the world. The forum will feature over 40 speakers, including key stakeholders from U.S. government agencies, leading multilateral and nongovernmental organizations, foreign governments, and the private sector. The event will take place from 8:15 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 1616 Rhode Island Ave., NW. Click here to register.

USAID Adaptation Community Meeting: Enhancing Global Climate Change Adaptation Capacity in the Pacific Small Island Developing States. The USAID Adaptation Thought Leadership and Assessments project on May 19 will host Britt Parker and Dr. John Marra of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to share approaches and outcomes of a two-year program to support climate change adaptation in the Pacific Islands. The event will take place from 4:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., 1717 H St., NW. Click here to register.

President Obama in Hanoi: Vietnam-U.S.-China Relations in Transition. The Woodrow Wilson Center on June 1 will host a panel discussion on Vietnam-U.S.-China relations in light of President Barack Obama’s first visit to Vietnam in late May, as part of its Weighing the Rebalance Series. Speakers include Marvin C. Ott, public policy scholar, Wilson Center; Yun Sun, senior associate, Stimson Center; and Hung M. Nguyen, associate professor of government and international relations, George Mason University. The event will take place from 3:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., 6th Floor Boardroom, Wilson Center, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW. Click here to register.

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For more on the Southeast Asia Program, check out our website, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, visit our blog CogitAsia, and listen to our podcast at CogitAsia and iTunes. Thank you for your interest in U.S. policy in Southeast Asia and CSIS Southeast Asia. Join the conversation!

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